Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has so much competitive potential

What I learned from getting beaten by a professional Smash Bros. player for over an hour.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
4 min read

Captain Falcon's helmet on display.

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If you've played Super Smash Bros. throughout the years, chances are the new World of Light adventure mode or single-player gameplay aren't what's exciting you.

The game series -- starting with the Nintendo 64 in 1999 -- has constantly grown its single-player options, from adding Adventure Mode in Super Smash Bros. Melee on the GameCube to the epic Subspace Emissary story in Super Smash Bros. Brawl on Nintendo Wii.

For the new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, which arrives on Dec. 7 for $60 (£50, AU$90), Nintendo introduced a new story mode called "World of Light," where a force called Galeem blasts a light and captures every character in the game except for Kirby, who now has to save the world.

If you're not familiar with Super Smash Bros., it's a fighting game among video game characters where instead of depleting your opponent's health bar, you try to knock them off the stage. The more damage you do, the easier it is to knock them out.  

Super Smash Bros.'s bread and butter rests on its competitive play. It's why years after the Nintendo 64 was discontinued, elite Smash players are still having combo contests, as if it were the dunk contest at the NBA All-Star game.  

So when Nintendo invited several members of the media to a 4-hour hands-on event with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, I went straight for the competitive gameplay.

Watch this: Our hands-on impression of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

The first booth I went to had four players in a free-for-all setup, items and stage hazards on. This more resembles playing with friends hanging out -- it's funny to see paddles from Pong as an Assist Trophy, popping up on the screen and smacking Yoshi around the stage.

This is what Nintendo originally envisioned for the Super Smash Bros. series -- a fun party game where random items across video game history come in and add to the chaos.

But if you're like me, these matches are almost never fun until you get to the final one-on-one with the best player in the room. That's where every Smash Bros. game shines, and I would get a taste of that each match after surviving an onslaught of Final Smashes, Pokeballs and Assist Trophies.

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I wanted more of that one-on-one feel, the energy you get from a match at a local tournament or a money match with a fierce competitor. That's when I spotted Nairoby "Nairo" Quezada, 22, the fourth best Super Smash Bros. Wii U player in the world.

You might also recognize him from this year's E3 , where he easily defeated three celebrities at the same time.

We played head to head for about an hour, with Nairo destroying me the majority of the time. Most people wouldn't think this is fun, but it's the most enjoyable experience I had that whole time.

Super Smash Bros. has always been about tension and adapting, learning your opponent's tactics, and figuring out how to counter it. It's why the best players in the world don't always stay at the top -- the competitive scene is always developing new techniques to knock off the top player.

Across the Smash Bros. series, Nintendo has constantly adjusted the scale to fix the skill gap. In Melee on the GameCube, it's difficult to be competitive if you haven't already mastered the game. In Brawl, Nintendo added features like random tripping, which nearly ruined the competitive scene.

With Smash Ultimate, Nintendo gives beginners many tools to get better, without making it too easy for competitive play. Take air-dodging, for example.

In Super Smash Bros. Melee, if you dodge in the air, you're immobile and can't do anything else until you land on the ground again. In Brawl and the Wii U versions, you could dodge in the air as much as you wanted, sometimes making combos more like a guessing game.

With Smash Ultimate, you get one air dodge, and a lot of lag after it -- but you still have options, whether it's to attack or escape. Little changes like that really add to the competitive potential.
From a 7-second clip that Nairo uploaded, competitive players were already breaking it down frame by frame to see if I could have escaped a killing combo.

Learning about Smash Bros. goes beyond the match, as top players rewatch footage the same way football teams do. Again, it's fine if you're not obsessed with Smash Bros. and willing to break down a 7-second clip, but if you are, Smash Ultimate is going to be really fun.

It also feels like there's more of a focus on balancing the massive roster of 70 characters.

Strengths and weaknesses of all the characters are a lot more pronounced. King K. Rool, the Donkey Kong villain, is strong and has good recovery options, but has a shield on its stomach that cracks and temporarily paralyzes the player after three bad hits.

Simon Belmont, from Castlevania, has a long range because of his whip and good defensive options, but his mostly vertical recovery is a glaring weakness.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is much better at balancing these pros and cons between characters, and leaving it up to players to figure out the match-ups.

Of course, figuring out the match-ups can be much harder when you're against one of the best players in the world. Every time I thought I figured out Nairo's strategy he immediately adapted and countered in punishing fashion.

But I never felt like the game was broken or that there was no way I could beat him. The game leaves a lot of potential to be competitive, if you're willing to take the time to learn.

For the record, I won one match, though I'm convinced he was going pretty easy on me.

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